U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice surprised journalists Sunday when she contradicted prevailing wisdom that the deadly assault on the U.S. consulate in Libya last week was not a pre-meditated attack. “What this began as was a spontaneous, not a premeditated response to what happened in Cairo,” Rice told Jake Tapper on ABC's This Week. On CBS Face the Nation she doubled down, saying “We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned." Following her interviews, Tapper took to his blog noting that Rice's statements directly contradict the assessment of Libyan President Mohamed Yousef El-Magariaf, who said there was "no doubt" the attack, which resulted in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans, was pre-planned.
So which is it? A pre-planned terrorist attack or the excesses of an unwieldy mob? Rice would not elaborate on her assessment—and neither will the State Department as the FBI conducts an investigation. But one thing is clear: Rice's remarks contradict more than just Libyan President Magariaf. Here's what other evidence it goes against:
- Members of Congress. Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a former FBI officials, told Fox News Sunday that the Libya attacks had “all the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda-style attack.” Pushing aside the idea that the outrage emerged from the airing of an anti-Islam film produced in the U.S., the Michigan Republican noted that the attacks came on the anniversary of 9/11. He also suggested that his classified intelligence briefings are informing him that Rice's comments are wrong. “And there's other information, classified information, that we have that just makes you stop for a minute and pause,” he said, saying the administration is wrong to focus too narrowly on the anti-film response. “I think this is a convenient effort by all of the groups who have other ulterior motives,” he said. “We know that al Qaeda is clearly trying to use this to incite violence. This is a mechanism for them to do what they have been trying to do all along.” In a separate run on the Sunday circuit, Sen. John McCain also pushed back against the idea that the attacks, which involved rocket-propelled grenades and assault weapons, sprung from the anti-film protests. “Most people don't bring rocket-propelled grenades and heavy weapons to a demonstration,” McCain said. “That was an act of terror. And for anyone to disagree with that fundamental fact I think is really ignorant of the facts.”
- Administration officials. Oddly enough, Rice's comments seem to be at odds with statements from administration officials last week to The New York Times. "The White House also believes that Stevens may have been killed in a premeditated attack, rather than a spontaneous protest that turned violent," The Times reported, citing unnamed officials. Update: It's worth noting that a U.S. official told Politico's Mike Allen on Thursday that “There's no intelligence indicating that the attack in Benghazi was premeditated,” however. Additionally, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters "We have no information to suggest that it was a preplanned attack."
- The Quilliam Foundation. The respected counter-extremism think tank Quilliam published a report on Wednesday making the case that it was a planned terrorist assault citing "foreign sources and from within Benghazi." The statement read, "we have reason to believe that the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi came to avenge the death of Abu Yaya al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s second in command killed a few months ago." It cited the following reasons:
- 24 hours before this attack, none other than the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a video on Jihadist forums to mark the anniversary of 9/11. In this video, Zawahiri acknowledged the death of his second in command Abu Yahya and urged Libyans to avenge his killing.
- According to our sources, the attack was the work of roughly 20 militants, prepared for a military assault – it is rare that an RPG7 is present at a peaceful protest.
- According to our sources, the attack against the Consulate had two waves. The first attack led to US officials being evacuated from the consulate by Libyan security forces, only for the second wave to be launched against US officials after they were kept in a secure location.
- The details cited by the Libyans. Unlike the State Department, Libyan officials gave a detailed explanation of why they believe the attacks were coordinated.
"The way these perpetrators acted and moved -- I think we, and they're choosing the specific date for this so-called demonstration, I think we have no, this leaves us with no doubt that this was pre-planned, determined," Magariaf said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
"It was planned, definitely. It was planned by foreigners, by people who entered the country a few months ago. And they were planning this criminal act since their arrival," Magariaf said. "They entered Libya from different directions. Some of them definitely from Mali and Algeria," [he] said.
Now obviously, it's in Magariaf's interest to describe these attacks as coordinated by outsiders because it takes blame off the Libyan people. At the same time, it also serves the Obama administration to describe the incident as spontaneous because it blunts allegations that it hasn't taken proper precautions to secure embassy officials and respond to threats. As CNN reported this weekend, American diplomats were warned three days prior to the Benghazi attacks that the security situation there was deteriorating. In any case, someone will have to reconcile this contradicting information as the investigation of a beloved American diplomat and three other Americans is carried out.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.